Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Poster for The Force Awakens

The most hyped movie of the year! I went in prepared to be disappointed, especially since I thought J.J. Abrams’ second Star Trek movie was a real let down, not to mention how crappy the second Star Wars trilogy was. But I have to say that Abrams more or less knocked this one out of the park. My biggest gripe is that the lavish references to and repetitions of the first movie feel a bit mechanical and fetishistic, if not cannibalistic, but for the most part I thought it still worked well as pleasurable fan service. If you’re going to be fetishistic, pleasure should be your goal, after all. The way the old characters were introduced into the story was well-calculated and -played. I was surprised at how happy I was to see those old characters again, in fact. That was something the second trilogy did not have at its disposal, and Abrams makes the most of his chance to play around with our nostalgic old flames.

As an action-adventure epic, it’s hard to quibble with. It starts fast and keeps up a steady pace of action, but although it never slows down, it also never wore me out. The production design has real grandeur, and it must be said that when shit blows up, it blows up more impressively than in the original film. The destruction of a planet has much greater impact in this one than in the old one, and the sheer scale of the new Death Star, as well, as the destruction of it (that’s a spoiler, but if you’ve seen the first film, you damned well know it’s coming), is equally impressive, although again, it’s so obvious that it’s going to happen that the sheer massive spectacle of it wasn’t quite enough to get me past the obviousness of what was about to happen.

The characters are well-wrought, and that’s probably the biggest improvement over the second trilogy. Han and Leia look like they have the history we learn about, and there’s real tenderness and regret in their relationship that again surpasses what we saw in the original trilogy. They seem to have grown, even while still having their flaws and limitations. The most serious criticism I’ve seen of the film is that the black character, Finn, is relegated to sidekick duty for the white savior character, Rey. The racial politics of the Star Wars films have always been problematic, and the earliest attempt by George Lucas to address the problem, the character of Lando Calrissian in the second installment, was problematic in his own right. Finn is a much more interesting character — a conflicted former stormtrooper trying to make up for the collective crimes he’s been a part of by association, if not by commission. He also gets to be funny, heroic, and dashing. It remains true, however, that Rey is the savior character in whom “the Force is strong.” Part of the racial problem of the franchise is built in, because so many of the original characters are white. But why did the cocky pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) in this one need to be white? Finn gets to wield a light saber, but why doesn’t he get to wield the Force?

But the movie also embodies one of the oldest schisms in American progressive politics, between white feminists and black civil rights activists. (Cf. the disagreement between the two groups over which of them should get the right to vote first.) Rey is another very good character, and it’s great that the white savior this time is female rather than male as in the original. I also thought it was very cool that the film acknowledged Leia’s own connection to the Force, as the daughter of Annakin Skywalker, much more than the original trilogy ever did. There’s another powerful female character named Maz Kanata, but she also points up the problematic racial politics, because she’s played by Lupita Nyong’o, but her race is invisible to us. It’s good that Nyong’o got the work, and I hope they paid her well, but it’s too bad that they couldn’t find a human role for her to play. Why couldn’t she have been the cocky heroic pilot, Poe Dameron, in fact?

But while I think the problematic racial politics is real — and in the US it’s unfortunately also almost inevitable — it’s still an improvement on the original movies on that score. As much as it repeats what we’ve seen before, I’d say it largely demonstrates an improved understanding of how to tell this now classic story we’ve seen before. I can’t say it’s straight out better than the first movie, which has already withstood the test of time, but I won’t be surprised if I end up feeling that way, which surprises the hell out of me. The other thing I didn’t know going in is that Lawrence Kasdan worked on the screenplay. He co-wrote the best of the original trilogy, The Empire Strikes back, along with Leigh Brackett, and once I saw his name in the credits, I thought, “Aha! That’s why it feels like it’s hitting the same familiar marks and moves as the best that came before.” I was impressed, dang it, and I certainly didn’t expect to be.

 


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